For some, the drive to create is strong, and unrelenting. Madeline Kenney hasn’t had much by way of breaks or pauses in her life for the last few years, but it’s quite alright with her. Over the last eighteen months, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer has directed a handful of music videos, self-recorded an EP, and written and arranged two full-length albums, culminating in Perfect Shapes, released last month on Carpark Records. Through it all, Kenney has broadened her sonic palette beyond the shoe gaze and fuzz rock of her previous work, emerging an artist who isn’t afraid to play with texture and form in playful, confident ways.
I had a chance to sit down with Kenney in person at the Songbyrd Music House and Record Café last Saturday, a few hours before her show later that evening.
Madeline Kenney plays Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago on November 9. Perfect Shapes is out now on Carpark Records.
Brightest Young Things: We spoke a little over a year ago, two weeks after the release of Night Night At the First Landing. Now you’re back on tour with another record, Perfect Shapes. Where did you find the time to write all this music while performing the previous one? Do you have difficulty navigating between performer and composer head spaces?
Madeline Kenney: You know, I was just always writing – I go crazy if I don’t write and if I don’t perform, because I really like doing both those things. But I’ve found that my creative time is definitely in the Fall – I write a lot in the fall. I put out the Signals EP in July of 2016, and I wrote Night Night that September. I put it out, and while I did tour, I also had some off time. I had the next one in the works and the opportunity to work with Jenn [Wassner] came up, so it was like “OK! Finish writing so you can do this!” And we made the record.
BYT: Yes – you worked on this album with Jenn Wassner (from Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes) down in Durham. Tell me about that experience – did you know Jenn previously? What made you decide to work with her, instead of partnering with Chaz Bundick (Toro y Moi/Les Sins) again?
Kenney: I knew I wanted to do something different from the start, just to have a different set of ears on the record. Chaz is great, but I wondered what my music would sound like if someone else had their input and their experience and opinions put onto my ideas. I also really wanted to work with a woman.
I was on tour during Night Night, playing in Durham, and I met a bunch of people down there and stayed in the house that I’m now living in.
BYT: Oh – so you moved away from Oakland?
Kenney: I moved but I’m moving back. [Laughs] So, just ignore it. This year of my life has been crazy – really crazy – but yeah, I’m living with Jenn in Durham at the moment. Right next door to the house where we made the record, so that’s really silly. We met through people down there and she said she was about to put up a record and be very busy, but she had a little window of time at the end of January 2018 where we could make something. So I finished writing really quick and we got to it!
BYT: The end result is obviously your record, but it’s really fascinating to pick up on some of Jenn’s influence – and it sounds like she’s singing backup vocals on a couple of tracks?
Kenney: Yeah! She sang on a bunch of it and she played all the bass on it as well, yeah.
BYT: How did ceding creative, and actual physical, space to someone else feel for you in this process?
Kenney: It didn’t exactly feel like that; it felt really collaborative and supportive. They were all my songs and all my arrangements – well she did all the bass arrangements and killed it. But it didn’t ever feel like her taking over anything. We have such similar tastes and interests that every idea that came up made a lot of sense. And if something didn’t work, we both knew it wasn’t working. There was never much by way of disagreement. And she’s such an incredible human being – we became really fast friends and now live together. [Laughs]
BYT: There’s a really wonderful variety of instruments and textures on this record – often veering into the baroque and with elements of avant-garde jazz. The song “No Weekend” in particular surprised me with that quasi-atonal alto sax. Knowing you have a deep background in musical theory, did you set out to create a record that challenged sonic expectations?
Kenney: I definitely did. I wasn’t really interested in making more music that people could say was shoe gaze-y or 90s inspired fuzz. I still love that sound; I will listen to Ghost of the Great Highway by Sun Kil Moon until the day I die, but it’s not really what I wanted to continue making, I guess? Though there’s still some of that there – if I used the fuzz pedal on a couple of songs people would be happy. [Laughs] But I don’t know – a lot of it had to do with gear I was getting. More synthesizers, and this pedal I got: a Boss Supershifter PS5, and you can harmonize or do this thing called “T-Arm” and it goes whoooooooooop up to however many intervals you set. I was putting vocals through that, and tons of stuff through that. A lot of it had to do with what seemed interesting to me and seeing where pieces of gear would take me, writing-wise. It was both a conscious decision to let myself do that and a conscious decision to do whatever and not worry about it.
I wrote all those songs and I took them to Jenn and I was like “I don’t think these are songs.” “No Weekend” in particular – I thought it was a bad song, and I thought it sucked. And she was like “No. We have to save it and make it work.” The combination of her help, Camille’s amazing percussion on it – this is Camille’s fourth tour with me, and I definitely appreciate her musicianship so much. The drum breaks on that song are so crazy, and all her ideas. And Andy from Wye Oak played saxophone on it. I was literally sitting in the studio – Nick and Amelia’s [from Sylvan Esso] studio and Andy walked outside the window and I yelled at him to ask if he wanted to play on the song. So he came over with a saxophone. I knew I wanted a crazy freakout section and I told him to do whatever he wanted. He did five takes and I picked the weirdest one.
BYT: It sounds like Eric Dolphy, or Coltrane on way too many drugs. It was rad.
Kenney: Oh wow – that’s really sweet!
BYT: What were your sonic reference points for this record? Talking specifically about not wanting to stay in the same lane.
Kenney: I was listening to a lot of Arthur Russell, and I think that’s what inspired a lot of the combination of electronic drumming and live drumming. Many of the songs weave those two together. [Pauses, looks up] I’m trying to think of all the references I put together for Jenn… Cass McCombs? I listened to a ton of his stuff. Kate Bush, as far as weird samples and synths. I sent Jenn a whole list of different inspirations and she was like “Oh my god, we’re the same person.”
BYT: Last year you told me how being on stage in front of people made you “feel free in a way.” With so many more shows under your belt, does that still hold?
Kenney: Yeah! I still love performing. I’m ready for a little bit of a break from tour – this year has been crazy because I’ve toured and moved a bunch and haven’t been in a home for a while. I drove from San Diego to Durham the other day, and I crossed the Continental Divide for the ninth time this year. [Laughs] So I’ve been doing a lot of driving, a lot of traveling – and that’s fine. I love it. I still feel really good performing. But these songs are a lot harder and there’s a lot more instrumentation than just drums-bass-guitar, which I could get away with on the last record. So we’re using more samples, my synthesizer, a 404; Camille uses a sampler. It’s a lot going on. It’s worth it when it works.
BYT: With regards to vocal manipulation and running your voice through different filters and processors, is this your first time using those effects in your work?
Kenney: Yeah – I didn’t really do that much on the last record. There was the regular old FX processing – just reverb and delay, baby – but both Camille and I use a harmonizer pedal. It doesn’t sound very human at times, but that’s ok. I want it to sound weird and kooky.
BYT: Do you feel like T-Pain or Justin Vernon when you do it?
Kenney: That’s so funny – I just saw a meme today that was like…oh my god, I kinda want to look it up…but it was about people who refer to vocal processing only as “T-Pain” but don’t feel bad! [Laughs] So silly. But do I? Sometimes.
BYT: I saw T-Pain on his acoustic tour. He did 6 shows around the country in October 2017, and he can sing. Which I knew – but it was really great. He got drunk as shit and sang his heart out for three hours.
Kenney: Woaaaah! That’s so cool. Good for him.
BYT: I was going to ask you about living in Durham, but I guess you’re moving back to California.
Kenney: I just miss it so much! I miss my friends and my music people. I’ve also been trying to put myself out there for more production work and making videos for people. I’ve directed all my music videos and shot and edited over half of them because I’m a control freak. I really enjoyed doing that, and I’m trying to do it for other artists because I’m hustling. There’s a lot more work out in the Bay Area, and as I started putting myself out there for it opportunities kept coming up. I’m flying myself out to California this December to produce someone’s record. Every time I go back, I’m just like “I love it here.” I dunno. Are you from DC?
BYT: No, but I’ve been here for a while.
Kenney: It’s hard to find your spot! You know? I love Durham, it’s super nice and really chill and calm and quiet. But I think I still need a little bit of the craziness of Oakland. That feeling is not to be ignored.
BYT: On a similar point, when we spoke last year you were visiting your parents in northern Washington State, and your dad had just built a “she-yurt” for your mom. How are your parents?
Kenney: Oh yeah, the She-shed! [Laughs] Yes! I’m just remembering that. I haven’t been to visit them in a minute, but I’ll go up this December. Not for Christmas though; that’s too loaded. [Laughs] But I’ll go see them, and yeah, they’re doing good. Oh my gosh, let me show you this picture of my dad. [Pulls out cell phone, shows photo] He went with my cousins and his sister to a Beatles tribute show…this is my dad wearing a mop-top wig! Look how happy he is! It’s so authentic and cute. They’re doing their thing. What do parents do? I don’t even know.
BYT: I should probably call my parents. It’s been like two weeks.
Kenney: You know, you get to this age where you are as old as they were when they had you, and you realize they didn’t know what they were doing. Because I don’t know what I’m doing.
BYT: You know the opening line from the Fleet Foxes’ second record, Helplessness Blues? “So now I am older / than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / what does that say about me?” I’m actually older than my parents when they had me and it’s terrifying – I’m a fucking wreck!
Kenney: Oh my god, yes! I know; I’m turning 27 this month, and my mom was 27 when she had me. And I’m like “I don’t know what life is.” Once you have that realization you see them in this new light. You’ve just been trying; everyone’s just trying.
Photos by Mahmoud Lababidi